At Create Digital Music, Peter Kirn blogs about all kinds of electronic and computer-based music tools, ranging from newly-announced keyboards to tips on running Ableton Live--generally the bleeding edge of digital sound technology. I like reading CDM not only for the news that applies to my own projects, but also because it's a peek into a musical world where I don't spend much time: that of the visualized DJ/sample-based laptop musician. I've had Peter's book, Real World Digital Music, for a few months now, and I recommend it for much the same reasons. It's a little biased towards that type of modern electronic artist, but it's also a good reference that beginners can use.
The book starts all the way back at the physics of sound, from compression and rarefraction to harmonic overtones. From there it moves quickly through the basics of converting analog to digital, setting up a studio, and preparing a computer for audio production. From that point, Kirn begins to get more specific on different kinds of digital production, such as loop-based arrangement, MIDI, synthesis, and traditional DAWs. These chapters are pretty comprehensive, especially considering the wide field of different software and situations that are involved. I was pleasantly surprised to see an entire chapter on different types of microphones and miking techniques for a variety of instruments, since I think that's one of the more difficult tasks for an amateur musician. Likewise, the guide to different effects is well-written and logically-sorted, with plenty of illustrations.
The last three chapters of the book are more niche-oriented. They cover creating printed scores, scoring video, and performing live. I hesitate to say that these were unnecessary, and they fit with the book's theme of being a broad guide to all things digital. But there are areas that I would have preferred to see more in depth--more detail about EQ for different instruments, for example. Still, I'm nitpicking about areas that other, analog-oriented guides probably have covered. This is a clear, thoughtful text, and it's made more practical by the inclusion of a DVD containing a load of free software, such as a demo of Ableton Live that can be used for many of the book's examples. Most of them are free downloads if readers search them out, but having them collected is very nice.
In the end, I think Real World Digital Audio is a good introduction to computer-based sound production. Although it's aimed at musicians (and perhaps musicians aspiring to a very particular niche of music-making), most of the text doesn't require a theoretical background. In fact, I'm considering using it as a reference when teaching other colleagues at the World Bank Institute, due mainly to the way it covers both the basics and intermediate topics without talking down to the reader. It's a good starter text, even accounting for the chapters most people will never use.
Last seen in Sketchpad #7, I've completed a sufficiently final version of Strange Chemistry, now available over at FourStringRiot.com. It replaces My Foundation until I get that recorded again--the previous version was tracked before I had a half-decent preamp and using Audacity, so the quality was pretty low.
As a test for the virtual recording rig, I'm really happy with Strange Chemistry. I hardly had to touch the levels on the different loops at all, so I could devote more time to making the vocals satisfactory. I recorded the song in a couple of passes in Ableton, tracking the distorted parts on the second pass so that a mistake in the solo wouldn't ruin the whole song. Then I pulled it into Cubase for mastering and fades. My "mastering" process basically just consists of using the MDA Stereo Sim on the final mix--since everything I do is basically mono, I need a little extra separation and MDA Stereo somehow creates the illusion of a big soundfield.
Before I recorded this, I put new strings on the bass, and you can really hear the difference. I love the way the chords ring out--they're very rich and percussive, more like bells than guitar. Whereas the sketchpad version was almost all distortion, I use very little of that channel here. Despite that, I think it's actually more sinister-sounding, especially toward the end when the bass chords begin to slide around each other.
My brother's a guitar player, and sent me a jazz song he'd recorded in Audacity. I added drums first using the Impulse sampler in Ableton Live, then played some basic chords with the Hammond B4 patch of the MDA JX-10 soft-synth. Finally, I exported the whole thing and laid down a bassline in Cubase.
On the whole, I think it sounds quite good--better than most of the recordings I do. I'm tempted to start doing more singer-songwriter material outside of the Four String Riot rules.
After a little departmental and internal drama, I've pretty much finished the regional jingles for the GDLN World Forum. These will be played as introductions for the various speakers and visiting participants. Basically, I went with a common organ/drum pad that resolves to C major over four chords, then added a melody line played by a different instrument for each region. In the overall conference theme, the instruments will trade off with the melody--I'm still working on doing that gracefully. Considering that almost everything was written in Pro Tools on the XPand! software synth, I think it sounds pretty good. Here's three samples:
The drum loop was actually lifted from the Soundtrack Pro sample library, and then I split it into two parts. One part had the treble dropped, to accent the thud. The other part mixes in a ring modulator set at a fairly low frequency, which creates those mechanical "hoots" and a little bit of a noise pad. It keeps it from sounding too clean or rock n' roll.
A month later, and I've finally gotten around to writing some lyrics for this song. This is what David Byrne would call a "monster" version--the lyrics aren't completely set, the recording quality is up and down, and there's still work to be done to make it gel. But I think this is finally starting to go from riff to song. Next month I'll try to have a final version, as well as a final recording of "Strange Chemistry" and a re-written version of an older song, bringing my total of originals to seven.
This sketchpad was also done completely virtually, by hooking my Phrazor VST effects rig into Ableton Live Lite and recording from there. Ableton's not my perfect DAW, but it lets me record post-effects, and Cubase LE won't, so for now it's all I've got. The quality is different from recording through my physical pedals, and I'm not sure if it's actually better yet. The distortion is too soft--I overreacted to the treble I heard in my good phones. Something I'd like to try is to record just the clean audio with the midi messages from my controller, letting me tweak effects or maybe even correct faulty presses after the fact.
I dig the bass synth at the end. If I can think of a structural change I want to make, it mainly has to do with transitioning between verse to chorus and back--too abrupt.
One of my managers comes up to me the other day and asks me if--now that the Bank has all this audio technology--I could put together some "jingles" for the upcoming GDLN World Forum. Basically, when each region is introduced for a presentation or acknowledgement, they want a short musical sting to play. I suggested that instead of creating one piece or going with commercial music (the licensing of which can be awkward), that instead I could write one 15-second chunk of music with instruments and harmonies from each region, and then we could just solo the regional instrumentation for each group.
I'm a little nervous about the assignment. Not because I can't do it on deadline--because the idea of being paid for playing music on the software synth isn't exactly painful. I'm more concerned that I'm a random American being asked to put together music that will represent different regions--not even just individual cultures (if there is such a thing), but large areas that might contain many different cultures and ethnic groups.
The potential to be unintentionally offensive is there, and I don't think I'm overthinking it. In other media, musical cues are often used as a shorthand for racial or cultural jokes--introducing a Japanese character with a gong strike, for example, or giving a character from Jamaica a steel drum theme. It's lazy, a bit disrespectful, and it's certainly not something that the World Bank should be using.
So I'm working off a few guidelines, to keep myself from basically producing a parody of an "edgy" sitcom soundtrack. The first is to request samples of appropriate music as templates from regional experts at the Bank. At least then I can point directly at the sample when asked what were you thinking? Second, I'm making it a basic policy to try to avoid stereotypical instrument choices--no sitars for South Asia, and I'd like to avoid using drums for Africa. That may not be possible, since sometimes those instruments are stereotyped for a reason (a lot of African music does play up the role of percussion), but I hope it will keep me from producing something that's either chintzy or reduces an entire section of the globe to just one country. Finally, I'm going to take advantage of the diversity here at the World Bank, and get at least a couple of opinions on the piece before I hand it over.
Any other guidelines that I should remember? Travesties to avoid? Anecdotes of other bad musical choices? The comments are there for a reason.
Update: On the other hand, the reaction from other Bank staff tends to be "you're making this into way too big a deal." I've been in meetings all day, literally. Maybe I'm just overanalyzing.
This is a pretty short audio file--only a couple of minutes long. It's still only instrumental, and doesn't it develop very much. But I'm posting it for three reasons. First of all, this is the next all-new original I'm working on, and I thought people (someone? anyone?) might be interested in hearing a song as it develops from a riff (this .mp3) to a scratch vocal version to a full structure to the final, polished version. So this song will be the subject of the next few sketchpads.
Second, it illustrates a quick object lesson for any other budding engineers out there. I don't know if I ever made it clear, but I've never been entirely happy with my recorded bass sound. The lack of balance can be partially blamed on bad headphones (now remedied) but was also caused by a lack of bass and a shrill high end (see: the distortion from Sketchpad Seven). I had thought that running the direct output from my bass amp's preamp section would give me a better sound, but it seems to interact oddly with the Tascam, and the result is not significantly better than before. Concerned that it might be a problem with my pedals, I tried swapping out my MXR distortion for my old Digitech Bass Driver.
Now, the Bass Driver wasn't necessarily an improvement. But it has two outputs--one marked "Amp" with a clean signal, and one marked "Mixer" that adds a speaker simulation for direct recording. And while I wasn't necessarily happy with the overdrive I was getting, I did notice that it sounded remarkably better through the Mixer output. A few quick patch cable switches, and the final result was to record my usual pedals through the cab sim on the deactivated Bass Driver. Now what the laptop hears is a lot more like what I hear from my amp. There's a bit more meat and less rattle from the MXR's distortion, and the clean channels have a better growl to them, with a more contained bottom end. All thanks to the speaker sim on a (nowadays) $50 pedal.
Finally, I'm putting this up because I think this is probably my favorite background loop for anything I've done so far, and the bass riff isn't bad either (although the chorus progression may have to go). I'm really looking forward to putting the rest of the song together.
The new apartment is getting closer to its final unpacked state, and while Belle has taken charge of themes and decorations for most of it, I do get this little corner for my home studio. I've got a giant clock face to mount above it. Groovy.
So here's what I'm tracking with nowadays, from left to right:
Although there's no reason they should be, these sketchpads are really satisfying. I put the file online, post a short description, and then probably two people download it. I guess they just make me feel productive--and it's always good practice to record yourself.
This is an old song. The band didn't like it. I'm not sure if it is worth resurrecting or not, but hey: that makes five originals! (six, including Innsmouth Blues). A couple more, I could be all indie and release an EP.
Sometime next week the ProTools rig that my department ordered at work will arrive. I'm very excited, and not just because it's a serious DAW to play with outside of work hours (mental note: pick up a flash drive for my personal projects). It's also a real opportunity to add much more polish to the Best of B-SPAN podcasts. One of my plans is to add musical beds underneath all narration--but for that, I need freely-licensed samples that include both intros and outros, plus a subdued central loop. And why use our canned music library when I can make much more interesting backgrounds myself?
This sketchpad is an attempt at building such a loop, using a riff that's cool but far too busy to fit into the Four String Riot. It's not perfect for that purpose--the overlaid solo is choppier than I wanted, and this is probably too high energy to use for such low-energy material--but I think it turned out surprisingly well as a compositional experiment, and was good for planning my approach. I think it also proves that it's possible to build this kind of music quickly using just my bass and a few software tools. The drum loop was programmed using the essential free beatbox Hammerhead (using its Acoustic kits) and then imported into my Cubase session. I recorded all of the bass directly into the Tascam US122 at the same tempo, then tweaked it with either the built-in effects or the MDA VST collection which is fantastic and free.
Much easier than writing a real song. And honestly, not much less fun.